CIO Spotlight: Santhosh Keshavan, Voya Financial

Sam Fried

Name: Santhosh Keshavan Company: Voya Financial Job title: Executive Vice President, Chief Information Officer Date started current role: Voya SVP and CIO since September 2017, assumed EVP role on March 2021 Location: Windsor, Connecticut Santhosh Keshavan is executive vice president (EVP) and chief information officer (CIO) for Voya Financial, Inc., […]

Name: Santhosh Keshavan

Company: Voya Financial

Job title: Executive Vice President, Chief Information Officer

Date started current role: Voya SVP and CIO since September 2017, assumed EVP role on March 2021

Location: Windsor, Connecticut

Santhosh Keshavan is executive vice president (EVP) and chief information officer (CIO) for Voya Financial, Inc., which helps Americans plan, invest and protect their savings — to get ready to retire better. In this role, Keshavan is responsible for the firm’s technology systems, data and digital organisation, information security and infrastructure. He also serves on Voya’s Executive Committee. Keshavan has more than 25 years of public and private sector experience as a transformation leader, including expertise in financial services, technology and operations. He has extensive experience in complex program management, including acquisitions and divestitures. Keshavan serves on the boards of the New York Institute of Technology and Connecticut Insurance and Financial Services, as well as VFI SLK Global Services Pvt. Ltd. — a joint venture between Voya and SLK Group. Keshavan also serves as the Executive Sponsor for Voya’s Asian-American Employee Resource Group.

What was your first job? I started my career as a programmer analyst at an IT consulting startup in Bangalore, India, called Span Systems. I got to develop many systems for the wealth and asset management industry for a company called SunGard (now part of FIS), which included Omni recordkeeping platform. I transitioned from the consultant role to working at SunGard a few years later. While at SunGard, I had the opportunity to develop strong product management skills, and the ability to lead and influence change through effective communications for a global client base. This initiation into the technology field taught me the fundamentals of IT and gave me a view into all the possibilities technology has to offer.   

Did you always want to work in IT? IT has always been my preferred discipline. I was motivated to create solutions and experiences that improve peoples’ lives. Many don’t realise that technology is a creative discipline. It takes motivation, desire and human creativity to see a need and inspire a solution – that’s true innovation. Technology capabilities are the tools that bring innovation to life. I not only wanted to be a part of that, I wanted to lead the way.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I studied computer science in India and received my Master of Business Administration from University of Alabama at Birmingham, with a major in information systems.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. My career path was fairly straightforward in the sense that I began at SunGard as a developer. In my time there, I wanted to learn as much as I could about all aspects of technology, so I raised my hand whenever a new opportunity came along. This led to more challenging assignments and career advancement. When an opportunity to lead an acquisition and integration organisation in Australia, I jumped at it. I was open, flexible and more than willing to make the transition to a new country. That move opened doors to new leadership opportunities and accelerated my career growth. Being open to new challenges and opportunities is a catalyst for growth and development. Taking chances and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone will open endless possibilities for advancement – and maybe even some adventure.

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? Voya’s business priorities center on 1) integrating outcomes across health and wealth; 2) engaging the employee and employer; and 3) continuing to invest in enhancing our core business. Voya IT investments are allocated to support each priority based on anticipated value to our clients and customers. Keeping the customer at the center of everything we do, our most significant IT investments will support ease of integration (i.e., cloud adoption, API-driven open architecture) and data-driven digital experiences (hyper-personalisation with data and analytics, customer journey-driven product development). While our “transform” investments fund these strategic initiatives, we also annually invest in “run” activities that enable our organisation to continually enhance simplicity, security, stability and scalability. These investments help us constantly modernise our technology environment to stay current with the latest in emerging technologies. Finally, Voya’s technology organisation is committed to investing in our team by training, developing and “up-skilling” our technology professionals in the latest in-demand skills.

What are the CEO’s top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? Voya is evolving from a product-oriented company to a technology-enabled solutions company. This will be realised through our strategic investment portfolio as previously noted. Therefore, the CEO’s top priorities for me next year are to lead our technology team to deliver on our strategic investments, and to continually inspire future innovation that supports Voya’s vision.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? I believe the CIO role should be uniquely suited to the company’s specific strategy and business needs. It should focus on driving a technology strategy that will accelerate profitable growth, create an ease of doing business, and deliver a productive, collaborative way of working for our teams.    

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? Yes, we always invest in digital transformation, but I view digital transformation as an ongoing practice to continually meet and exceed customer expectations. Delivering digital tools, capabilities and experiences to help customers make the best possible financial choices and best prepare for a better financial future, will naturally lead to operational efficiency and deliver revenue growth.

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? Voya’s digital business has come a long way in the past three years. We also invest in our data platform, which is tightly coupled with our digital platforms. We have all the foundational tools, capabilities, talent and skills we need to succeed, we are excited for the future and an open road to endless possibilities ahead. And we are committed to ongoing learning, to further our evolution and maturity. Our digital experiences (or value streams) are aligned to product managers who leverage a dashboard of customer and business analytics (KPIs) to help inform and prioritise improvements and new features.

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? These days, technology advancement progresses at an exponential pace. Voya’s technology culture needs to be infused with agility, responsiveness, collaboration and a sense of excitement for new possibilities. We cultivate that energy through celebrating experimentation, diversity, teamwork and innovation. 

For Voya as a whole, our culture is about what we do and how we do it. Our vision guides the way and is underpinned by our core values of customer passion, integrity, teamwork, innovation and community enrichment. We are proud of and devoted to the many programs Voya embraces that demonstrate our values every day. For instance, our commitment to Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG), Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), and our Voya Cares® program exemplifies our values and helps to better the world we live in. Our vision and core values are what connect us to our shared goals and enriches our culture.

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? Overall, Voya Technology is investing in artificial intelligence, machine learning, natural language processing, cloud, API, and advanced data science and analytics. Skills in these areas are in high demand around the globe, and will most likely be the most challenging roles to fill for some time to come. We continue to invest in our talent and also forge new partnerships with leading universities and our internship program to help us with ongoing talent needs.

What’s the best career advice you ever received? The advice I received early on in my career and that I still live by today is to surround yourself with a deeply knowledgeable, highly trusted team with vast diversity of thought and experience. Encourage endless curiosity, experimentation and expression of diverse opinions — and then give them space to lead and grow. Their success will be your greatest success. This may be cliché, but it is also sound advice that has been proven to be highly effective.

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. Yes, succession planning is a core leadership accountability and essential in a CIO role specifically in terms of risk mitigation. The greatest challenge with training up senior-level leaders is time. Their priorities are most often focused on keeping the business running and delivering on strategic technology initiatives to accelerate business priorities. That leaves little time to prioritise cross-discipline leadership training and development. I find the best way to overcome this challenge is to seek opportunities for leaders to lead special initiatives where they can exercise the most fundamental leadership skills, including strategic planning, critical thinking, risk analysis, influencing and negotiating, communication and coaching.

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? At Voya, we are fortunate to host a robust intern program every summer and I have the pleasure of meeting with so many soon-to-be college grads and early-career professionals aspiring to be IT leaders. They ask this question of me often and I always tell them to take ownership of their career. There are so many IT career paths, so take the time to learn and experience various IT disciplines. It will position you as a well-rounded leader, while also providing you the opportunity to find the path that inspires you most. Please remember there is no shortcut to success.

What has been your greatest career achievement? There are two that I’m particularly proud of.

The first happened in August 2019, when Voya entered into a joint venture partnership with SLK Group to form VFI SLK in India. This new company was built only seven months before the pandemic, yet with a strong culture of shared goals, virtual connectivity and deep collaboration, it is a profitable business, thriving today.

The other also occurred in 2019. Voya IT was approaching the finish line on a multi-year technology transformation. Our final milestone — migrating our data centers to private cloud — was the most impactful and the riskiest. We had to perform the migration over a weekend in September, due to other extenuating priorities. It just so happens that a new (and our largest) client required onboarding that same weekend. After extensive review of our plans, thorough analysis and in-depth risk assessment discussions, we felt we could do both — and we did. We executed a monumental transition and onboarded a major client all within the same 48 hours — and it was seamless to our clients. That success felt really great.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? Be even more open to new ideas and challenge the status quo.

What are you reading now? The Heart of Business by former Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly.

Most people don’t know that I… Love to play Ping-Pong.

In my spare time, I like to…Golf, travel and spend time with my family.

Ask me to do anything but… Ski.

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